I was once on a tram in Istanbul with Felix, my partner, and I‚Äôm not proud of it, we were joking around in an a very PDA kind of way. We didn‚Äôt notice that the man opposite us was growing more and more edgy and bothered. At some point, he got our attention and asked, struggling to speak English, whether we had a house.
Confused, we said yes, in a way that meant ‚ÄòI think so?‚Äô, and started talking to each other again. He was still annoyed. And as the doors opened at his stop, he tapped something and from his phone came a robotic voice saying ‚ÄòThis is not a bedroom.‚Äô
We were ashamed and a little cross. Then we realised that unfortunately it was our stop, too.
Such is life with Google Translate, Babelfish (after the Douglas Adams invention of a fish that wriggles into your ear and helps you understand any language), and language-learning apps like Duolingo. But, while these modern wonders will no doubt have us all chatting away with perfect strangers in no time, I would like to express my feelings about the humble language class.
Earlier this year, I decided to brush up on my French, as one does. I enrolled at the Alliance Francaise and went to my first lesson some time in February.
There were six of us in the class and we had a lot of fun. We told each other about our likes and dislikes, justified these, learned about food, and did a speed-dating thing that helped us combine all of the above.
Doing a language course inevitably means that you will be speaking with a vocabulary more limited than your home language, and while this will be frustrating if you‚Äôre ever stuck having to speak it in the real world, there is something wonderfully funny about sitting with a group of people and all fumbling your way through some daft artificial conversation about the various specialities of the various provinces of France.
Because this class wasn‚Äôt at beginner level, something else also happened. Everyone seemed to take on a French personality. The man sitting to my right was a statistician at the JSE. He was quiet and polite in English, but in French, he became bold and heartless.
A week after lessons started, I got engaged. Next French lesson, we practiced one of the millions of past tenses, and had to discuss what had happened on our weekends. I told the man to my right this heartwarming story, and his response was ‚ÄòI don‚Äôt give a damn,‚Äô but meaner, and in French. We became increasingly hysterical trying to explain to our teacher what had been so funny.
One of the other people in the class was a man we called ‚ÄúMonsieur le Costume‚Äù. He was tall, with red hair, and wore fancy suits. The suits were very particular, though ‚Äì almost old-fashioned, though the man was young. A slightly too big, double-breasted, beige, linen number. Shirt cuffs monogrammed with pink embroidery. His nickname, was, in other words, another way of saying ‚Äòfancy pants‚Äô.
He attended about half of the lessons, and had a very deep voice. One lesson, French being French, we had to discuss the merits and faults of the various definitions of hedonism. We dutifully went around expressing our feelings as to whether we thought hedonism was a good or bad way to live. Finally, we were asked: So are you a hedonist?
‚ÄúOf course I am,‚Äù said Monsieur le C, deadpan. His French personality was perhaps a more distilled version of his South African one.
In September I decided to enrol in an Italian beginners class at the Dante Alighieri Society ¬†in Cape Town. The decision was driven by my obsession with Elena Ferrante, by the cool name of the centre and by finding it very funny to speak with an Italian accent, and, so, the belief that speaking actual Italian might be even funnier.
I am the only one in the class, I can assure you, with such shallow justifications.
There are eight of us. The first lesson, we had to explain what each of us was doing there. Bear in mind that in the French class, almost everyone used the actual word francophile to describe themselves.
At La Dante, the person to my right wanted to learn Italian because back when she was a student twenty years ago she met some Italians and has been friends with them ever since. She often visits them in Italy. To her right was a florist whose dad had been Italian but she‚Äôd never learned it. Next to her were two sisters who have been dating Italian brothers for six years. The next week, one of the sisters got engaged. Next to them was a student at UCT‚Äôs opera school, learning Italian to improve his opera. Next to him, someone called Perseus, who is engaged to an Italian and wants to impress his in-laws when he visits in December. As if the name Perseus is not Italian enough. And next to him, a man whose wife is Italian, and whose daughter speaks it, and he now wants to learn.
Don‚Äôt let anyone tell you that French is the language of love. French class is for people who are fooling nobody. They just want to look good.
We sit together and say the alphabet, count, say ‚ÄòNice to meet you‚Äô (formally and informally), watch videos where someone shows her friend pictures of her holiday, saying ‚ÄúThis is Olga. She is Swedish.‚Äù ‚ÄúThis is Rodrigo. Argentina.‚Äù. Perseus says that he speaks four languages, plus ‚Äúpassione‚Äù.
Here are some things I learned in my Italian class. Use them to wow that special someone in your life:
Cellphone: Telefonino, as in small telefono.
If you are feeling really great you can say benissimissimo, instead of benissimo.
An @ sign is called cicciolina which means snail
Sogni d‚Äôoro: Sleep well / golden dreams
Perhaps the thing to be treasured is not the language class, but classes in general. Let us mourn, for a moment, that we can now learn everything on YouTube, where things are cheap, quick and fun.
Let us hope, though it may be a dying art, that small groups of people will continue to gather and sound very silly with each other, remember very little of what they learned, but never forget the Dante Alighieri classroom during a heat wave, the tree outside lit up by a yellow floodlight, the leaves like the wool of a golden dreamy sheep. The cicciolina in the tree, craning the stalks of their eyes to peer through the window. The telefonino on silente, feeling benissimo.
Helen Sullivan is the co-founder and editor of Prufrock, a multilingual print quarterly of African fiction, nonfiction and poetry. To submit, subscribe, find stockists or get in touch, visit prufrock.co.za. Follow her monthly column on Casimir¬†about new technologies or the things they aim to improve upon.¬†
Illustrations by Lucy-Rose Currie